Posting Of McChrystal Article Raises Ethics Questions

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Many established news organizations published the Rolling Stone article about Gen. Stanley McCrystal, and did so without permission and before Rolling Stone itself had put the article on its own website. Michele Norris and Bill Grueskin of the Columbia Journalism School discuss what's fair in the new world of Internet publication, and how it affects traditional magazines such as Rolling Stone.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Early last week, news outlets went into overdrive when they learned that Rolling Stone magazine was about to publish an explosive article about General Stanley McChrystal's exceedingly candid comments about the Obama administration's national security team. That story, of course, led to General McChrystal's resignation.

However, for several hours, readers had a very hard time finding the actual article that sparked all the ruckus. Rolling Stone had yet to put the story online when the news broke. So at least two news organizations took it upon themselves to post a full pdf file of the piece called "The Runaway General" without Rolling Stone's permission.

Was that a necessary act in the name of news gathering? Or was it copyright infringement, plain and simple? For answers we turned to Bill Grueskin. He's the dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism school, and he's the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal online. Welcome to the program, Mr. Grueskin.

Mr. BILL GRUESKIN (Dean of Academic Affairs, Columbia Journalism School): Hi, thank you.

NORRIS: Now, the republishing of the McChrystal article is a very high profile example of something that seems to happen every day. Internet sites regularly aggregate or curate content that's been published by others. But in this case, the content had not been officially published yet. So, did the sites that posted the pdf of that article, Time and Politico, those sites, did they cross a line by making it available?

Mr. GRUESKIN: I think they crossed the line in the same way that a bank robber who goes into a bank and takes money out of the cashier's drawer crosses a line.

NORRIS: Now, you know, there are some people who fall on a different side of the table in this debate. There are some that basically celebrate if someone picks up or, in this case, steals some of their content, if indeed they link back to them, because that's a way to drive traffic back to their site.

If these two organizations had pulled the pdf and had provided some sort of link, would that have made this the kind of thing that would pass muster?

Mr. GRUESKIN: Yes. I think you're exactly on point there. I mean, that's the kind of the thing that happens a million times a day all over the Web. And I would imagine in retrospect Rolling Stone might've wished that theyd had an online version ready to go and already published at the time they sent advanced versions of this out to the Associated Press, which is how the story first got out.

NORRIS: Mr. Grueskin, I'm going to take you out of the Ivy League and put you back in the news room. When you were running The Wall Street Journal online operation, how would you have handled this?

Mr. GRUESKIN: We dealt with this on a pretty regular basis. The Wall Street Journal broke...

NORRIS: But this is not a run-of-the-mill story here. I mean, I'm sorry to interrupt you.

Mr. GRUESKIN: Right. Sure.

NORRIS: But you're talking about a big, explosive story, one source not available to you. What would you have done?

Mr. GRUESKIN: Well, we used to have stories and The Wall Street Journal still breaks stories along these lines big, big merger stories, stories that would move the stock market by many points one way up or down. We developed over a few years a fairly calculated strategy about how we would go about putting this out there. Of course, The Wall Street Journal's a subscription site. We would often put those stories on the free part of the site.

And we would encourage a lot of traffic back to The Wall Street Journal. We would also get our PR department working to make sure it was disseminated widely to a lot of other media outlets, always ensuring that at the end of the day people knew this was a story broken by The Wall Street Journal. What Rolling Stone has gotten out of this and this is important to keep in mind, is a huge boost to their names and their credibility. And it's put them on the map for many people who would think that this is simply a magazine that covers pop and rock music.

NORRIS: Bill Grueskin, thank you very much.

Mr. GRUESKIN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Bill Grueskin is the dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School. He's also the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal online.

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